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Memories of a Catholic Girlhood Paperback – March 15, 1972

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Editorial Reviews


A perhaps misleadingly restrictive title for a folio of some eight autobiographical pieces dealing with Mary McCarthy's past when as the eldest of "poor Roy's children"- her parents died during the influenza epidemic of 1918- she shuttled between two sets of grandparents and three religions- Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. Under the monitory supervision of the Catholic McCarthys in Minneapolis, the four young ones were turned over to a blood relative, Aunt Margaret- a "well-aged quince of 45" whose regimen of prunes and parsnips, no toys or books was supplemented by the capricious brutality of her husband Myers. Removed by "the Protestants", her grandfather Preston and his Jewish wife, to Scattle, there followed a period of quieter discipline in a Catholic convent where she lost her faith; the transfer to an Episcopalian boarding school and infractions of another nature; a summer in Montana and her introduction to whisky under the tutelage of a married druggist; and the pieces conclude with an unforgettable portrait of her grandmother Augusta Morgenstern and the elaborate ritual of her days.... Time has not dulled the sharpness of the image and incident here, and the portraiture has an exceptional definition to which the polished prose- there is never a flubbed phrase- is certainly contributory. There is also a warmth, and an often gamine charm, absent from her fiction, which may attract others beyond her anticipated audience (although Catholic readers have already been aroused on the initial publication of these pieces.)  (Kirkus Reviews)

About the Author

MARY MCCARTHY (1912-1989) was a short-story writer, bestselling novelist, essayist, and critic. She was the author of The Stones of Florence and Birds of America, among other books.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books (March 15, 1972)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156586509
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156586504
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #292,719 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

44 of 48 people found the following review helpful By sweetmolly on September 24, 2001
Format: Paperback
As an off-again, on-again admirer of Mary McCarthy, I sometimes wondered if she ever had a childhood or just appeared full-blown, rapier-witted and sword at her side. While never doubting her talent, reading her was frequently as pleasant as drinking a glass of vitriol.
Mary indeed had a childhood, and unusual it was. I am sure it marked her forever to lose both her parents within a week of one another to influenza at age six. To add to the horror, the family was traveling by train to start a new life in Minnesota. Mary, herself, was deathly ill with the virus, and that colored her impressions of the tragic event.
Some reviewers and the book jacket describe her childhood as "Dickensonian," I presume referring to Oliver Twist. I disagree, as Mary came from a well-to-do family that didn't lack for the material things of life. She lived with an aunt and uncle from her 6th to 11th year and was tremendously unhappy, claiming she didn't have enough to eat, was dressed in hand-me-downs and frequently beaten. Yet all photos of this time depict a well-dressed, well-fed child. At age 11, she was taken to live with her benevolent, wealthy grandparents in Seattle. From that time on, she received the kindest attention and was expensively educated. My doubts about those five early years are because Ms. McCarthy all her life was an implacable, unforgiving enemy when her feelings were aroused.
The memoir is beautifully written with sharp and fascinating characterizations of her family. She appends each chapter with an epilogue taking an adult's eye-view of her childhood impressions. It is most effective. You are constantly reaffirming her brilliance. Well worth reading.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Jennifer S. Bachman on December 29, 2000
Format: Paperback
Written long before the recent memoir craze, this book stands as one of the best of that genre. McCarthy looks back on an almost Dickensian childhood with wit and discernment. Perhaps most striking is the lack of defensiveness; writing of abuse suffered at the hands of a misguided great aunt and her sadistic husband, she traces the way it shaped her character but never uses it as an excuse. Nor is she more sparing of herself than of her relatives: she not only gives us a portrait of a realistically foolish, self-conscious adolescent Mary--recounting the sorts of youthful episodes many of us continue to blush over as we remember them in adulthood--but in notes appended to each chapter she deconstructs her own memories, noting where she has given in to the urge to dramatize or where her recollections conflict with those of others who were present. A wonderfully honest, bracing book, refreshing in its lack of grievance and its unostentatious, unsentimental good humor.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 21, 2001
Format: Paperback
I have always held a fascination for people who grew up with a real sense of religion that later fell away from the faith. I bought this book expecting something akin to the movies that are so prevalent nowadays about the catholic schoolboys smoking and getting caught by the nuns and hit with a ruler across the wrists. Instead, I was greeted with an amazing tale of Mary and her sad loss of her parents, pitiful existence with her aunt and uncle and twisted "saving" by her West Coast relatives.
The childhood she had was less than perfect, I agree, but the fact that she survived it and lived to create such a wonderful literary account of it almost makes me appreciative of her having to go through it. The chapter on her grandmother is so reminiscent of my own mother that I had to laugh out loud at times.
Well worth the read and the struggle through the many latin references and unfamiliar religious practices.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Fulmoonmajik on March 10, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood is a collection of essays that recall the author's childhood as well as relate her family history. For the most part, the essays are arranged in chronological order (as the events occurred in her life) with the exception of the essay "Yellowstone Park," which, as the narrator explains, is deliberately placed slightly out of sequence since its subject matter is of a more adult nature. The collection begins with a lengthy explanation entitled "To the Reader," in which McCarthy gives some background information but, more interestingly, attempts to justify any errors or inaccuracies in the pages that follow. Moreover, every essay is qualified by several additional pages in italics that contain corrections, further explanation, and / or disclaimers for minor inaccuracies. For many memoir writers, the struggle to remain true to the facts while still telling a good story (and avoiding possible legal or personal backlash) is an agonizing one. Unfortunately, McCarthy errs too much on the side of caution, to the point of being redundant, and too frequently directly addresses (i.e. distracts) the reader, which detracts from the scenes' intensity.

The events that occurred in McCarthy's childhood were both tragic and dramatic: the death of her parents in the flu epidemic of 1918, the subsequent neglect and maltreatment by her great uncle and aunt, and the separation of McCarthy from her siblings. The author is at her best when she loses herself in the poignant depictions of childhood grief and confusion, for example in her depiction of the missing butterfly trinket and the unjustified beating that resulted from the trinket's recovery.
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